‘I asked how many died; he replied 25,000.’
My trip to Syria was during the honeymoon period after the first Gulf War. Syrian cooperation had been secured at the cost of billions of American dollars. Bashar Hafez al-Assad had become president upon the death of his father, Hafiz al-Assad, and flags of mourning were flying everywhere.
Along with a small group of curious Americans, I had taken advantage of the uniqueness of the moment as we traveled throughout the country, and the experience was fascinating. One experience, though, was the most memorable and haunting. Our tour company provided an archeologist of note, and the Syrians supplied a Syrian guide, Amir, who was about 26, a bright man fluent in English. His education included a master’s degree from Oxford in English Literature. Conversation came easily to this erudite young fellow, who showed a grasp and appreciation for western culture.
One day, as we pulled into Hama, a famous tourist town boasting picturesque water wheels, I recalled that a massacre under the rule of the father, Hafiz, had been reported years ago. Interested in Amir’s version of those events, I mentioned that the name Hama resonated in my memory, but I couldn’t recall why. His response was his version of a war fought by his father against a fundamentalist uprising, whose headquarters were right in this place. To eliminate this threat to the State, the town was surrounded by tanks and artillery and the areas in which the rebels lived were leveled. I asked how many died; he replied 25,000. He further identified them as whole families – men, women and children. As we parked our van in the courtyard of a new hotel complex, I asked him where the area involved was; as I expected, it turned out we were driving on it.
When I showed concern about the indiscriminate killing, he responded that his countrymen “had learned an important lesson – to change the government, one must change it from within, not from the outside. And so you see,” he said with a smile on his face, “we have had no further problems.” With a shudder, I calculated that all this was from an English literary scholar, profoundly exposed to western culture. I think of Amir often.
Richard Shein (email@example.com), a Providence resident, is a member of the editorial board of The Jewish Voice.